Over the past five years Australia (along with other western democracies) are experiencing a wave of change as the political tides of representative democracy begin to recede. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, which assesses public trust levels across 28 countries, Australians indicate 35% trust in the government to ‘do what is right’ – a far cry from the average 43% across all 28 countries.
Australia’s alarming decline in trust extends to the systems that govern the country. According to a joint investigation by the Museum of Australian Democracy and the University of Canberra, Australian’s levels of democratic satisfaction has slumped from its height of 85.6% in 2007 to 58% in 2016.
Levels of democratic satisfaction in Australia
Source: Museum of Australian Democracy
*Satisfaction is calculated from the combination of ‘very satisfied’ and ‘fairly satisfied’ scores; dissatisfaction is calculated from the combination of ‘not very satisfied’ and ‘not at all satisfied’ scores.
Similarly, in a 2018 public opinion poll by the Lowy Institute, fewer than half of Australians aged between 18 and 45 agreed that democracy was preferable to any other kind of government.
Chris Eccles, Secretary for Premier and Cabinet (Victoria) argues that with deciding trust, Governments “need a sophisticated way of tapping into community sentiment, moderating those who consistently dominate the social media connection with government and working more directly with communities that aren’t pursuing a particular narrow interest.”
Rising levels of education, better accessibility of information and technology, the desire for freedom of expression, and the growth of decentralised decision making are some of the key drivers of citizen-led political reform. As an alternative to representative democracy, Direct Democracy aims to decentralise decision making by empowering citizens to decide directly on political initiatives. While there are many interpretations and variations of a Direct Democratic system of government, they typically incorporate the following attributes.
1. Each voter is entitled to a single vote on each issue. The value of issues is ‘weighted’ according to economic forces of opportunity cost and comparative advantage of the political issue ‘market’.
2. Each voter can delegate voting power to other individuals to act on their behalf. Delegates can also elect a delegate, forming a ‘bloc’.
3. Each voter can choose to forgo their vote on a particular issue, in exchange for a vote of equal value.
Modern approaches to Direct Democracy incorporate the use of technology to create a robust and reliable ecosystem of digital democracy – giving rise to Governance 2.0. The ubiquitous nature of technology has touched virtually every aspect of our lives, from personal banking to dating – and the next wave of disruption could be one of democratic modernisation.
One example of this is Flux Party – a political party which claims to enable citizen-led Direct Democratic voting through an encrypted application accessible on a smartphone or computer.
Governance 2.0 has the ability to decentralise and democratise traditional layers of policy making, giving equal voting rights to all citizens for a fair and egalitarian governance process. Models of direct democracy have been shown to enhance political trust by increasing transparency and community alignment. However, a political system of direct democracy is not without major considerations or unintended consequences, one of the most cited being the lack of political expertise in society. Decentralised decision-making could result in the disruption of global partnerships, trade agreements and other arrangements made to protect the integrity of the country.
Decision making is also inextricably tied to the allure of perceived individual benefits – a concept underpinning the economic theory of rational self-interest. Incentives play a large part in steering economic and political decision making. For example, if a person was asked whether they would support the provision of new laptops for a local primary school, or alternatively support a public transport subsidy to reduce the cost of travel, the person is likely to make a decision they perceive to directly impact their quality of life or standards of living. In a scenario where voting was not anonymous, it Is possible that incentives for self-interest may be dampened by societal expectations of normative conduct, resulting in decision making led by citizenship behaviours, instead of self-interest.
A Governance 2.0 model opens up a multitude of questions relating to the security, accuracy and accessibility of digital voting. These issues threaten the viability of a robust and sustainable solution for the future. The Pew Research Centre found that 88% of Australians believe representative democracy is an effective system of government, compared with 64% confidence in direct democracy.
Australian opinions on systems of government as a good or bad way to govern the country.
Source: Pew Research Centre, 2017
While a Governance 2.0 model could empower citizens to lead the charge in a new age of democratic reform, there are significant political hurdles to overcome in order to bring the voice of citizens into the political arena. As with any wide scale transformation, buy-in needs to be obtained from all major stakeholders and driven with purpose and direction. Changing individual mindsets of a governance system that has existed for over a century is a prodigious undertaking enshrined in deeply complex and intricate systems and processes. In developing a Governance 2.0 model, society would need to work together with the government to craft a system tailored to an Australian context. An aging and heavily dispersed population may impact digital literacy and accessibility – both of which need to be addressed to promote a fully inclusive voting system. System security, reliability and accessibility are essential components of a frictionless digital ecosystem. At an individual decision making level, behavioural incentives must be considered to support the wider community’s economic progress, environmental sustainability, and social wellbeing.
As the next wave of digital disruption points toward democratic modernisation and citizen-led reform, it’s possible to envision a political future freed of societal distrust – where decisions are made for the people, by the people.
David is a member of the Future of Government practice with a focus on leading teams to design and deliver innovative business solutions across a range of challenges facing the public sector. David has performed a diverse number of roles in project delivery, design thinking, business and financial analysis, communications and change management.